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City approves thinner budget
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A new fiscal year starts Friday and the Ceres City Council approved spending plan continues to keep things running smoothly.

"We're maintaining all the basic services with this budget," said Art deWerk, who is doubling up as police chief/ public safety director and acting city manager.

The 2011-12 fiscal year general fund budget calls for $15.5 million in spending with seven frozen positions that will primarily have an impact on parks and streets services, said deWerk, that will "not be readily apparent."

The budget calls for use of $559,000 of general fund reserves. Deputy City Manager Sheila Cumberland said the city still has a $4 million reserve, or 25.9 percent of the overall general fund. The City Council has set a policy of maintaining a reserve level of at least 25 percent, which means there will be less to borrow next year if revenues fall short.

"For our reserves we're using less and less and cutting back every year but we're slowly weening ourselves off of layoffs," said Cumberland.

The city began hacking at its staff two years ago when budgetary pressures came. The city has lost 19 employees since, starting with department heads, mid managers and supervisors. Some positions are not being filled through attrition, such as when parks supervisor John Haynes retired and was not replaced.

The new budget keeps in place the scenario of not filling the city manager's job which was vacated by Brad Kilger in November. DeWerk has been the acting city manager while running the police and fire department. The savings may be as high as $330,000 annually.

"I'm fine with that," said deWerk. "It saves a lot of money and I think things are working well."

The budget calls for less people to care for city parks.

"Our parks crew has five people to care for all the parks. They really need eight people but at this point we can't afford it."

Residents may find their parks maintained less frequently as they would with a full staff.

"We get complaints of grass growing longer and on sidewalks, complaints about being unable to get through to city staff on phones. We're experiencing it now. When you lose staff there are reduced efficiencies, sometimes phone calls arent returned on a more timely basis. It's an inconvenience but it's not critical."

Savings will continue to be realized by having Deputy Police Chief Mike Borges double up as the city's Human Resources manager; and police Lt. Rick Collins overseeing the city Recreation Department and Ceres Community Center. The city also has no Public Works director but has two superintendents reporting directly to Cumberland. The city intends to fill the position with Mike Brinton once a new city engineer is hired.

A bright spot in the budget is the addition of a new police officer position. DeWerk said the half-cent sales tax in Measure H passed in 2008 calls for a gradual hiring plan. The city has approximately 50 sworn officers for a city of 45,000 residents. DeWerk stated that Ceres still does not have enough officers to meet the FBI recommended ratio of 1.5 officers per capita (it's at 1.15 per capita).

"Our Measure H funds are in excellent shape," said deWerk. "It's been such a blessing that the community's supported that."

Mayor Chris Vierra said he's happy the city was able to maintain a healthy reserve. He thanked the city staff for cuts and "doing without" to get a decent budget passed.

DeWerk noted that the operational trimming included reducing cell phones, the sale of vehicles and eliminating some computers.

"At a time like this, it's either those things or it's jobs," said deWerk. "And I would personally refer to have bodies do the work."

A dark spot in the city's revenue picture is the Ceres Community Center, which is running $185,000 in the red for the current fiscal year. That shortfall is temporarily cover by the proceeds of the sale of the Daniel Whitmore Home from the city to its Redevelopment Agency. Those funds will likely run dry in three years, however.

A huge unknown for the city is what the state will do to the Ceres Redevelopment Agency. The California State Senate approved AB 27 which abolishes all redevelopment agencies and seizes their funds for state use but it's tied to passage of a budget and will most certainly meet a court challenge lodged by the League of California Cities.

The Ceres Redevelopment Agency stands to lose $1.7 million and the Stanislaus-Ceres Redevelopment Agency could lose $349,000 to the state.

"We just don't know about the future of redevelopment funds," said Cumberland. "The language is vague and a budget has not been approved. League ready to fight."

Cumberland said the city's Landscape and Lighting District is not completely funded in the new budget. She said it's conceivable that the city may have to cut back on expenses by trimming landscaping maintenance and street lighting, or attempt to increase user fees on property tax bills which must undergo the Prop. 218 procedure.

The budget funds 189 employees.

Ceres' budget has been steadily trimmed in recent years. The 2008-09 general fund was $18.6 million and was trimmed to $17.1 million of the 2009-10 year. The current fiscal year budget which ends on Thursday, was adopted at $16.1 million.

The total budget with all discretionary and non-discretionary funds is $47.9 million.